Written by Jerry Huang
Motherless Brooklyn is a detective fiction novel, but at the same time it contains many instances of comedy broadcast through many different forms. Pages 145-203 is a prime example of these passages, as there are many highly different yet still funny passages that are visible to really any reader.
The first instance within these pages is when Lionel gets kidnapped after leaving the Zendo. While supposedly being kidnappers, the men who take him are highly inefficient and don’t seem to have planned this beforehand, resulting in the following humorous exchange:
“Take the Drive,” he said.
“Tell him take the East Side Drive”
“Where are we going?”
“I want to be on the highway”
“Why not just drive in circles?”
“My car is parked up here,” I said. “You could drop me off.”
“Shut up. Why can’t we just drive in circles?”
“You shut up. It should look like we’re going somewhere, stupid. We’re really scaring him going in circles”.
“I’m listening to what you say no matter how you drive,” I said, wanting to make them feel better. “There’s four of you and one of me.”
“We want more than listening,” said Chunky. “We want you scared.” (Lethem 145-146)
Lethem is using the techniques of absurdity and misunderstanding within this passage in order to remind the reader of how incapable every single character in this story is at accomplishing their goals. Never since the start of the story has anyone been capable of actually getting what they want, something which is repeated in this passage. It is also amusing, as the sheer incompetence of the kidnappers is so exaggerated even Lionel misunderstands what they’re trying to do and goes out of his way to try to comfort them.
Another entertaining moment happens when the detective, Lucius Seminole, confronts Tony and Lionel, leading to very sarcastic comments thrown between him and Tony. For example, Tony tells him that “[Matricardi and Rockaforte] went through a tunnel in the basement […] They had to get back to their hideout, since they’ve got James Bond-or Batman, i can’t remember which-roasting over a slow fire” (191). Lethem is using the straight man/ funny guy technique to make the conversation interesting, with the irony being that the suspect, Tony, is playing the straight guy, and the annoyance he instills within Seminole makes the situation a lot more interesting, especially with Lionel saying random tics in the background. This can become amusing to the reader especially since both characters are supposed to be playing very serious roles in the novel, but neither seems to fully understand how their jobs work and suck pretty badly at doing it.
Another funny part occurs within Lionel’s mind, where he thinks:
One Mind. I focused on my breathing.
Come home, Irving.
One Mind. Sick Mind. Dirty Mind. Bailey Mind.
Oreo Man. (196)
Lethem uses a strong combination of repetition and escalation by gradually making Lionel’s thoughts deviate from what he is supposed to think about. What makes the passage effective is the serial escalation on the final line, where what he starts thinking about is so completely unrelated to the previous lines that the abruptness of this makes the line funny.
Overall, while the comedy in Motherless Brooklyn is bland and sometimes incomprehensible, there remain a variety of gems hidden within the text of the story, some of which can provide a spark to your day and keep you interested in reading forward.